Composing Grief

By: Dr. Lee Drake, Ph.D and Sherry Williams White, RN,GRS
Monday, November 9, 2015

Dr. Lee Drake and Sherry Williams White share coping tips for the grieving family. They stress that communication is the key for a family coping with grief. It is important to be together to talk, cry or even sit in silence. At the same time, there should be respect for each member's way of handling grief. Each member of the family has a different personality and different coping styles, so it is unfair to expect everyone to grieve the same way. As funny as it may sound, each family member must grieve alone but with each other as well. Sharing your grief as a family will help you grow as a family.

by Dr. Lee Drake, Ph.D and Sherry Williams White, RN,GRS

Communication is the key for a family coping with grief. It is important to be together to talk, cry or even sit in silence. At the same time, there should be respect for each member's way of handling grief. Each member of the family has a different personality and different coping styles, so it is unfair to expect everyone to grieve the same way. Some family members will grieve privately, others openly and others in a combination of these styles. Some members of the family will want to talk about the person who died all the time and others just want to withdraw from the conversation. As funny as it may sound, each family member must grieve alone but with each other as well. Here are some suggestions to help families cope with grief:

  • Continue to give attention and time to your present family members when you are together. Let them know that you love them.
  • Maintain a balance of attention between the deceased family member and the surviving family members.
  • Try to be sensitive to each other's feelings. Feelings are often difficult to verbalize listen to what is meant as well as what is said.
  • Some feelings are expressed by actions or nonverbal cues. Be sensitive and taker notice of each other's behavior and reactions.
  • Hugging or a hand on the arm or back gives comfort and a sense of closeness.
  • Be willing to listen. You can't hear when you are doing all of the talking.
  • It may be helpful to set aside a time to be "alone together" as a family or to even hold a family meeting. Encourage (but don't pressure) family members to talk and express in their own way. Do not be judgmental if everyone doesn't participate. Remember, they have to do this "their way."
  • Plan family projects or trips.
  • Make a "family diary" to which each family member "may" contribute a writing or drawing if they wish. You may even want to create a collage using old photos.
  • Be careful not to give each other the silent treatment. Make sure the person who has died continues to be a part of the family conversations. They are still a part of your memories and their presence in your lives have helped to shape who you are and their life and death will continue to shape who you are becoming.
  • Respect the life stages of various family members; adolescents might gravitate towards peers when coping with grief. Give them permission to do that. The seniors of your family may feel more comfortable sharing with people their own age who have experienced the same thing. Young children will move in and out of their grief as the move through various stages of their lives. Everyone has a unique way of grieving that can be entirely different. Accept each other's method of coping and give permission to each other to reach out to those they can identify with.
  • Discuss the loved one's former role in the family. This will necessitate changes in family duties and new roles for surviving family members. Be very careful about expectations of surviving family members. You can not expect a young boy whose father has died to be the "man of the house" or a son whose sibling who has died to be like that sibling in sports, schoolwork or ambitions, etc. Discuss what will be missed and is irreplaceable and acknowledge those things. But also take the time to realize that there are others of you who can gain a sense of control over what is happening to the family by doing other tasks performed by the person who died. This is not replacing that person, but filling a need of the family and it can be done as a way of developing a new identity and a new normal for the family.
  • If depression, withdrawal, grief or family problems are getting out of control (meaning that you can not cope with daily living), seek out professional counseling. Reaching out for strength is a sign of strength not a weakness.
  • Recognize that anniversaries, birthdays and special days will be difficult for each member of the family for different reasons. Discuss together how to observe these occasions. Could you make variations on traditional celebrations that continue to observe the special day and in someway honor the life of the person who died? Do any family members have particular concerns or suggestions? Make a list of options you have for how to handle each holiday or special day and choose ones that meet the needs of the family. Be open to allowing a member of the family to celebrate in private in order to meet their own personal needs and once again do not be judgmental and give each other space to celebrate in your own way.
  • Consult as a family when deciding what to do with the belongings of the person who died. There is no hurry to move through this process. Do it when it feels right. Take your time and find ways to handle precious mementos. You might even have to figure out a way to draw cards or pick a number so items that more than one person want don't create breaks in the family unit. If there are things that you aren't sure about, put them in a box and you can go through them again some time when the family is ready. In fact, perhaps this process will help: make three categories, one for the things you are sure you want to keep or give to others, the second for things you don't want to keep or want to put in Goodwill and another for things you aren't quite sure of. Then distribute the things you want to keep or give to others, take the others to Goodwill and for the things you aren't sure or, put them away until a later date when you can deal with them. When you feel like going through them again, use the same process to whittle things down. If you have to do this whole process several times, that is okay, you will be certain at the end that you have not given or thrown things away that you can not recover and you will be taking care of yourself in the process.
  • Remember it is difficult to help your family if you are falling apart. Working on your own grief and taking care of yourself will enable you to help other family members cope. If you each do this, you will have more to give one another.

Sharing your grief as a family will help you grow as a family. 

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